Building an exercise identity

Fit KidsWhat kind of an exercise identity is your child building for him or herself?

What are you doing to help build it?

What is your school doing?

I talk a lot about how one of the goals of Fit Kids is to leave children with a positive association with exercise, so they’ll want to keep it in their lives.

For example, I meet so many people who tell me, I’ve never been sporty, I was always that kid trying to get out of doing Phys Ed, so it’s really hard for me to get to gym.

And, I meet people who tell me that they can’t remember ever not having exercise as a part of their lives, ever since they were picked for A-team soccer at the age of 7.

I’ve recently started calling this idea of our attitude towards exercise, and confidence around exercising, an ‘exercise identity’. As in, how much you consider yourself to be an ‘exerciser’ or not.

I decided to google the term, and wasn’t surprised to discover that research has been conducted on exercise identity, and also that just 2 weeks ago this study was published, linking adult sedentary behaviour with childhood memories of PE class.

In short, these studies prove that our experiences of exercise in our formative years have a direct impact on how active we are as adults. 

What I have found in so many years as a teacher, a sports coach, and more recently in designing Fit Kids, is that more often than not teachers focus on the wrong things during a class or session.

They focus on how well a child grasps a concept or demonstrates a skill, on following a lesson plan to the letter, on teaching the rules of a game, or picking out children who are going to be good on their sports teams. There’s also an element of ego involved – the kids with natural talent make the coach feel great about their effectiveness as a teacher, or get them excited about the sporting success this child could bring.

All too often, teachers and coaches aren’t aware of the responsibility they have in creating a child’s exercise identity. 

Yes, there are children who have incredible natural talent, and that needs to be nurtured. There are also children who have absolutely no natural aptitude for physical skill acquisition, and they need a different kind of attention and intervention. And, there are plenty of other children inbetween these two extremes.

Wherever a child sits on this scale, we as teachers can help them to love movement, be more competent, and feel confident in their bodies. Not by never picking teams or trying to avoid them knowing how good or not good they are at something. In fact, the opposite is true.

There are 5 things we can do to build a positive exercise identity in children:

1. Teach them to recognise their strengths and weaknesses, and to notice how they can improve at something through practice. It’s not about being better than the other guy, it’s about being better than you were last week. Build excitement around doing one more push-up this week than last week, or running 2 seconds faster today than yesterday.

2. Teach them to celebrate each other’s successes, and to understand how someone else being better at something doesn’t make you any less of a person. Everyone has value, everyone has something to give. No-one is worth more as a person because they’re on the A-team, or because they can do cartwheels. No-one is worth less as a person because they can’t climb a rope, or keep missing the goals.

3. Teach them to notice what they enjoy about exercise, and to keep moving in that direction. Do you love running until you’re out of breath? Great, do that. Do you love kicking a ball up and down a field? Go for it. Do you love cycling up and down your road? Walking with your family? Playing tennis with your friends? Pick the physical activity you love the most, and go for it. It really doesn’t matter how your child gets their exercise, all that matters is that you’re building a positive association with it.

4. Don’t use exercise as a punishment. As in, ‘the next one to talk has to do 5 pushups’. Or, ‘if you drop the ball you have to run around the field twice’. Teaching children that exercise is a chore or a punishment is counter intuitive.

5. Separate exercise and sport. They’re not the same thing. Exercise is a life-skill: it’s something our bodies need us all to do to stay healthy and function well. Sport is a great way to keep exercise in your life, but it’s not the only way. Children need to understand the difference!

About Simon

I'm a dad, a teacher and a business owner, doing my best to make every day count. I'm determined to shape the way the next generation feel about exercise, and I'm doing this by showing children the difference between enjoying exercise as part of healthy lifestyle, and participating in exercise as a means to perform in sport. I'm also helping parents learn how to include exercise as a normal part of daily life, and working with schools and teachers to change the way they present exercise to children in the foundation years.

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